Here is a magical movie moment. A nun who has been brutally raped by a gang of street kids kneels before a church altar in pious supplication. Unbelievably, she speaks in defence of her attackers, wishing that their "bitter semen" can somehow be redeemed by God.
Beside her is Harvey Keitel, bad lieutenant – bloated, shambling, incoherent, drugged out of his tiny mind. Harvey listens to the nun's demented speech, then offers this helpful advice: "Get with the program, Sister!"
Bad Lieutenant is a truly mind-boggling film. Few movies have prompted such an utter ambivalence in my own critical response: on a first viewing, I found it in equal parts stupid and remarkable, offensive and sublime. Subsequent viewings across a decade have revealed what a purified, minimalist work it is, and how unique within the annals of American cinema in the '90s.
Writer and co-director Abel Ferrara (Body Snatchers ) is an unimpeachable auteur – a visionary filmmaker who takes his own fantasies, torments and obsessions to the point of madness. Even better, he has the ability to coax Keitel – as well as the remarkable writer-actor Zoë Lund – out on the limb with him.
You will never find a narrative structure like this one advocated in a how-to-write-a-screenplay manual. The film tracks the decline of its anti-hero through a blur of scenes and sensations, with only the incessant drone of sports commentators on radio and TV casually marking the important stages of the plot. As a director, Ferrara is heir to John Cassavetes' bold experiments in films like Husbands (1970): as viewers we are mercilessly plunged into the middle of every event, and rigorously denied any privileged or superior point of view.
Avid supporters of the film have embraced it as a tortured allegory of the Catholic faith, equating Ferrara's burning interests with those of his contemporary, Martin Scorsese – who has himself, subsequently, veritably blessed this film. However true this religious interpretation may be, it cannot absolve Ferrara of all sin in his representation of men, women, sex and violence.
Yet Ferrara, like Pier Paolo Pasolini or Russ Meyer, has fully chosen the path of profane cinema. Whatever mixed feelings anyone may have about Bad Lieutenant, it is a compelling, amazing film. So get with the program!
© Adrian Martin May 1994